ShopTalks: iBeacons making neighborhoods accessible

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My ShopTalks: BlindSquare Enabled logo

iBeacons are being deployed in various businesses and in large areas such as malls, airports and bus stations. The ShopTalks project is a community-wide iBeacon project to help travelers who are visually impaired to navigate independently through the neighborhood.

What is an iBeacon?

iBeacons are used to deliver unique and valuable location-based content and services to customers. iBeacon technology relays messages to and from the physical beacon - sending relevant packets of data and information to a multitude of users, depending on what the user would like to see. These iBeacons are Bluetooth low energy (BLE); iBeacons work indoors, similar to outdoor GPS, but with low power consumption. iBeacons were initially created to provide local navigation indoors. Apple introduced the first set of iBeacons in Apple Stores in December 2013; these beacons provided general information - such as details about the next workshop when the user was standing in the workshop area - or specific information - such as notifying an individual when his/her order is ready. 

iBeacons for Accessibility Purposes

While designed for mainstream use, iBeacons are being deployed specifically to help travelers who are visually impaired to independently navigate unfamiliar spaces by providing critical information. iBeacons are programmed to announce information such as the general layout of a store or building, and the iBeacon can provide specific information about an item/area nearby such as 'the men's restroom is on the right'. In a bus station scenario, the beacons can provide the general layout of the bus station, can name specific areas such as a ticket counter and gates; and, the iBeacons can announce specific bus arrival/departure times at each gate.

Community Accessibility

Initial iBeacon deployments were facilitated by one entity - basically an individual store/chain of stores or a larger entity such as an airport. Now, communities are banding together to provide broad access for people who are visually impaired. An example of a community effort is the ShopTalks campaign in Yonge and St. Clair neighborhoods in Toronto, Canada. Facilitated by CNIB, this project placed 200+ beacons in businesses around the neighborhood. ShopTalks uses iBeacons that users access through the BlindSquare app. As a traveler leaves the subway and walks on sidewalks through the neighborhood, iBeacons announce nearby stores. When entering the business, the iBeacon provides general information about the business layout.

In the video below, Debbie Gillespie demonstrates how she uses the ShopTalks iBeacon system.

For more information, go to CBC News post, New smart beacons open doors for the blind in Toronto neighborhood.

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